1920's Harlem, modern-day Detroit take center stage
By finding its sense of community, Detroit may experience the same creative resurgence that defined one of the most important periods in black history – the Harlem Renaissance – which is the theme of a newly commissioned play by Michigan State University’s Wharton Center for Performing Arts.
Although set in the 1920s, “Garden of Joy,” – the first commissioned work of the MSU Federal Credit Union Institute for Arts and Creativity at Wharton Center – is easily applicable to today’s economic and social struggles, said Bert Goldstein, director of the institute, who’s also the producer and director of the play.
“If there’s a city in the country that needs a sense of community right now, it’s Detroit,” Goldstein said. “And there are signs the community is coming together, that it’s trying. But I certainly think if you’re in Detroit and you want a sense of hope, this play offers a sense of hope.”
And that’s why more than 1,800 middle- and high-school students from Pontiac and the Lansing area have visited Wharton this week to see the play. As the outreach arm of Wharton, the institute reaches 30,000 students per year and often subsidizes performances. It was founded in 2008 with a grant from the credit union.
For “Garden of Joy,” Wharton created a study guide that went to participating schools.
“I’m struck by how little middle-school and high-school students know about the Harlem Renaissance,” said Alvin Waddles, musical director for the play and a Detroit jazz legend. “So I’m looking forward to presenting so many of the great parts of the Harlem Renaissance – the words, music and literature – in an entertaining venue.”
“Garden of Joy” takes place on New Year’s Eve in 1929 at Harlem’s hottest night club, Garden of Joy. There, the all-black radio station, the Harlem Broadcasting Network, is trying to launch despite prejudice from white advertisers. Nevertheless, in the face of struggle the Harlem blacks rallied together to make their voices heard through music and literature.
The Harlem Renaissance was an era of political upheaval, but also of creativity, producing the writings of black authors Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston, Goldstein said. “Garden of Joy” incorporates pieces written by those authors and also includes references to W.E.B. Du Bois, co-founder of the NAACP, and the music of Fats Waller and Duke Ellington.
The play is written by Ken LaZebnik, who wrote for Garrison Keillor and popular television shows such as “Army Wives.”
“The opportunity to do a theater piece full of the rich music of the period, containing the tremendous writing of African-American geniuses and the long, laborious challenges facing African-American business people in the America of the 1920s, is the fulfillment of a very long dream,” LaZebnik said.
Goldstein said in the aftermath of events like the Sandy Hook shooting and natural disasters, heroes emerge from the community. And that’s what he hopes patrons will take away from “Garden of Joy.”
“The people of Harlem knew the only way they were going to survive was by banding together, by recognizing common goals and working together to achieve them,” Waddles said. “And that’s certainly a good message for Detroit right now.”
Performances of “Garden of Joy” will be at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Wharton Center. Tickets are on sale at the Wharton Center Box Office.